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Breaking down the Steelers attempt to slow down the dynamic Bills rushing attack

The Buffalo Bills may not boast a great passing game, but their ability to run the ball can make their passing game look better than it actually is — and that’s why the Bills will challenge the Steelers on Sunday.

NFL: Buffalo Bills at Oakland Raiders Cary Edmondson-USA TODAY Sports

The Buffalo Bills are an enigma in 2016. On the one hand, they boast the best rushing attack in the NFL, and have the third-most sacks. On the other hand, they have a mediocre-at-best passing attack despite two solid receivers, and a defense that is very susceptible to big plays. That bodes both well and poorly for the Pittsburgh Steelers, as they go on the road to take on the Bills.

Pittsburgh enters week 14 riding a three-game winning streak, with victories over the Browns, Colts and Giants. The Bills are coming off a hard loss to the Raiders, in which they led through 40 minutes, but proceeded to give up 29 points in the last 20 minutes to lose by 14.

In fact, Buffalo is just 2-4 in their last six games, and 6-6 overall, one game behind the Steelers. And Pittsburgh is a road favorite this week.

But there is a reason why we still play the games, and in the case of Buffalo, that reason usually boils down to running back LeSean McCoy and their exceptional rushing attack.

Head coach Rex Ryan is a defensive-minded coach, and there is one nearly universal trait among defensive-leaning head coaches: far more often that not, they prefer their offense to be a ball-control unit that can grind minutes off the clock at a time. Ryan is no exception, and he’s got that, with a star runner, quality depth, and a very disciplined offensive line.

One area where the Bills particularly excel in the run game in with inside zone runs.

Week 13, 1st Quarter, 1:33 Remaining, 2nd & 1

There are a few key things to note here. First, the entire offensive line moves as a single unit off the snap. This is the single-most important aspect of any successful zone run. If anyone is out of sync at the snap, the entire blocking scheme will break down. The technique requires athletic linemen with fast feet, and every member of the Buffalo unit qualifies.

In particular, watch center Ryan Groy and left guard Richie Incognito. Groy is ideally positioned with the nose tackle shaded to his backside (left) shoulder. This allows him to take an initial slide step and then drop his backside foot, which squares him to the defender’s attack and gives him a solid base. The primary hole then opens up off Groy’s right shoulder.

Incognito also begins with a slide step, then drives forward, allowing him to put his shoulder into the defensive end’s chest. This gives him a distinct leverage advantage. Once he has opened a good cutback lane for the runner, and because he only ever engaged with one arm, he is able to easily disengage and get into the second level, and lands a textbook punch to the chest of the linebacker. These two blocks, combined with some great running, led to a 29-yard gain. Most impressive of all is that wasn’t even McCoy running the ball, but rather Mike Gillislee.

Buffalo quarterback Tyrod Taylor isn’t the best passer in the world — in fact, there absolutely no guarantee he will be the team’s starter in 2017, and didn’t exactly get a vote of confidence from a very non-committal general manager this week. But he does add a running dimension to the position that is lacking for most other teams. It allows the Bills to do things most professional teams don’t even have in their playbooks, like zone reads and pitch options, like the one below.

Week 13, 1st Quarter, :30 Remaining, 2nd & 5

This play is set up by an aggressive, downhill attack from Raiders’ linebacker Khalil Mack, who drives into the offensive backfield off the snap. He actually does a good job of recognizing the option and stopping his attack, instead running laterally with both Taylor and McCoy. The problem is that he was already too close to them, and stuck in the middle — “no man’s land”, if you will. He needed to be shaded closer to McCoy than he was.

Taylor does a great job of reading Mack’s eyes and hips in this play. Mack is staring down Taylor, and has his hips rotated too far toward the quarterback. As soon as Taylor pitches to McCoy, Mack is forced to rotate, but is not in an optimal position to do that, and is eliminated from the play because of a clunky turn toward the runner. The only thing that prevented a touchdown on this play was the sideline, as the play originated on the playside hash marks and didn’t allow enough room for McCoy to get the extra yard outside that he needed to clear the defense.

Finally, let’s take a look at one of the more creative plays Buffalo can run because of the overall quality of play of the line and the runners.

Week 13, 3rd Quarter, 14:53 Remaining, 1st & 10

What springs this play is not the nine players moving to the offensive right at the snap. It’s the two players moving to the left.

Off the snap, almost the entire offense moves right, including McCoy. The exceptions are the center, Groy, and tight end Nick O’Leary. The only defender to the playside who is moving the right direction is linebacker Perry Riley (#54). Linebacker Bruce Irvin is coming from the outside and is met by Groy as he pulls to his left, while Perry arrives at the hole just in time to be neutralized by O’Leary. You literally could have driven a small car through the hole the two blockers opened up.

Those blocks got McCoy past the line of scrimmage, but this play demonstrates something else a little farther downfield: right guard John Millers gets off his initial block and gets into the second level, where he gets a picture-perfect block on linebacker Malcolm Smith five yards downfield. That block ultimately is the difference between a 5-yard run and a 54-yard run.

While Buffalo’s passing offense may not present the kinds of challenges the Giants did last week, with a franchise quarterback and several top-shelf receivers, their run game allows their passing game to look better than it actually is. If they get the run going early, watch out, because it’s all downhill — or, more aptly, downfield — from there.